Jojo Rabbit

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

JoJo Rabbit
"As Jojo, Davis delivers one of the finest performances of the year." | Photo: Kimberley French/Courtesy London Film Festival

"You're not a Nazi," says Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the girl from behind the wall. "You're a ten-year-old boy."

It's a remark that Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) takes badly at the time. He really wants to be a Nazi. He wears the uniform of the Hitler Youth. He carries a special knife. His best (imaginary) friend is Adolf Hitler (played by director Taika Waititi). He has fantasised about capturing a Jew and delivering 'it' to the F├╝hrer. But Elsa terrifies him. She's also kind of beautiful, and that terrifies him too.

Jojo Rabbit has been the subject of stringent criticism centred on the notion that it's anti-Semitic or that it's trivialising the Holocaust. Neither of these attacks is fair. Yes, the film makes extensive reference to anti-Semitic propaganda, which its young hero initially takes at face value, but it does so in order to ridicule that way of thinking. Far from being trivial, it uses comedy to deliver and emotional punch to the gut. it might be considered problematic in that it's centred on gentile characters who help a Jew, but Elsa is far from being a passive character. It's an intensely anti-fascist film and it's able to dismantle fascist ways of thinking by approaching the subject through a child, because Jojo is easy to identify with and, unlike most adults, feels no shame about changing his mind.

As Jojo, Davis delivers one of the finest performances of the year, capturing every nuance of his character's transformation and demonstrating impeccable comic timing. Waititi has always been good at coaxing impressive work out of children and it's clear that the two developed a strong bond. The film begins with lighthearted comedy (undercut by a darkness of which the audience is well aware but Jojo is not) as the enthusiastic youngster and his best (non-imaginary) friend Yorki (Archie Yates) spend a weekend away at a camp where they are trained for the combat that children will be forced to join during the final days of the war. It shifts gears when Jojo, recuperating at home after an injury he's convinced has made him monstrous to look at, discovers Elsa. Although his mother (played by Scarlett Johansson) has hidden her, Elsa forbids him to let her know that he's aware of the secret, and tells him that he'll be punished as a conspirator if the Nazis find out - so he has no-one to talk to except Adolf who, as it turns out, isn't as interested in helping with Jojo's problems as in trying to get Jojo to help with his.

What follows is a sweet, heartfelt tale balanced by physical comedy and humour that stems from the clash between Jojo's understanding of the world and that of the adults around him. Sam Rockwell is charming as a much-demoted officer with his own secrets to keep who takes Jojo under his wing. Johansson, after being temporarily miscast in Rub & Tug, gets a brief chance to play a man after all as she imitates Jojo's absent father. There are numerous opportunities to laugh at the absurd rituals of the Nazi regime and Waititi cleverly intercuts these with some of the film's scariest scenes, reminding us of the resilience possessed by children.

Elsa, of course, is the film's most resilient character, and McKenzie gives her both dignity and complexity. As the girl effortlessly takes control in her dealings with the hapless Jojo, she spins him fantastic lies about what it means to be Jewish, gradually prompting him to examine the absurdity of their situation. The two develop a mutual dependence and affection that reflect the civilisation Germany will struggle to rebuild.

There is no danger of anybody who sees this film sympathising with the views of Waititi's petulant Adolf. Jojo Rabbit is clever, charming, laugh-out-loud funny and deeply humane.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2019
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Satire following a lonely boy and his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, whose nationalistic views are challenged when he discovers his mum is hiding a young Jewish girl.

Director: Taika Waititi

Writer: Taika Waititi, based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens

Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Sitara Attaie, Luke Brandon Field, Victoria Hogan, Brian Caspe, James McVan, Judith Georgi, Bethany Adams

Year: 2019

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: Germany, US


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